Creative Lives — Design for Disability’s Jessica Ryan-Ndegwa: “I learnt so much from asking: What is my end goal?”
Having founded her platform, Design for Disability, six years ago, Jessica Ryan-Ndegwa has learnt a lot about what she loves and dislikes about running her own business. Set up with the mission of changing the perception of orthopaedic products, she’s been able to use her product design, blogging, public speaking and curation skills to full effect. And as someone who was born with cerebral palsy, she’s found herself in the unique position of applying personal experience while sparking conversation between specialists, researchers and users themselves. But when lockdown set in, Jessica had a chance to step back and reassess; and realised that she’d moved away from the thing she loved most: the creative side. Here, we get to know Jessica’s journey and mission, and, having had the chance to reflect, what she’s learnt about being a business owner.
Product Designer, Blogger, Founder of Design for Disability
ICA, Tate, National Maritime Museum, Shape Arts
BA Product Design, Kingston University (2012–2015)
How do you describe what you do?
I have many facets, and that can be something you struggle with when you run a business – sometimes you feel like you’re split into ten people! But essentially I am the founder of Disability for Design, then alongside that, I work independently, as Jessica.
Can you tell us a bit about Design for Disability and how it came about?
Design for Disability aims to reduce the social stigmas around orthopaedic products in public. The platform was born out of some of the challenges I faced as a small child, growing up with cerebral palsy.
It began life as my final major project at university, as a collaborative approach to designing traditional orthopaedic products that you would normally find within an NHS setting. The goal was, and still is, to create a collaborative hub between designers, users, people with disabilities, designers, scientists, researchers and orthopaedic paediatricians.
Did you have a sense of what you wanted to be when you were growing up?
Cerebral palsy affects my entire body, and I’ve had to break down a lot of personal hurdles to show people that I’m capable. I was brought up very protected and it wasn’t certain whether I’d be able to walk and talk by the age of four or five. But as I hit each of those milestones I felt ‘more normal’ in a way.
“I wasn't brought up as ‘disabled’ [which] meant I had different perspectives on how I communicate with people and understand things.”
That said, I wasn't brought up as ‘disabled’; I went to a mainstream school until secondary school, when I went into a special educational needs setting. Having experienced those two settings meant I had different perspectives on how I communicate with people, understand things and design products.
It’s also why I think I had such a strong urge to help other people in comparable situations – and those in tougher circumstances. For example, I’m not a wheelchair user and I am verbal.
The Design for Disability website
What were your first steps were after graduating from the Product Design BA at Kingston?
When it came to the end of uni, I finished with a plan – I wanted to push my final project [Design for Disability] further, and I knew the way to do that was to build contacts and networks. I think part of the reason I started the business was to figure myself out, and the other part was to attract jobs. I was very determined.
I put myself out there and said, “Hi world, I’m Jessica, I’ve got cerebral palsy and I’ve got this business idea in the area of inclusive design.” I emailed companies telling them I was a writer, a blogger, an advocate and expressed what I wanted to explore. From there, people began wanting to know who I was, and I started getting requests to work with people.
“I put myself out there and said, ‘Hi world, I’m Jessica, I’ve got cerebral palsy and I’ve got this business idea.’ From there, people began wanting to know who I was.”
Jessica during one of the courses she attended
‘PLUGGED IN’, an event Jessica co-curated with the ICA, GUAP, A New Direction, Create Jobs – aiming to connect, debate and revolutionise the way we work together
I worked with companies like the ICA, Tate Exchange, the National Maritime Museum, The Courtauld Institute of Art and Shape Arts. I also helped to co-curate events that enabled people with disabilities to feel that level of inclusion in the arts and cultural sector. This is usually lost when people with disabilities look for opportunities in these spaces – often they aren’t catered for.
But I believe a lot of these opportunities came to me because I advertised myself to the world. If I had just been applying for jobs, I wouldn’t have had the same responses. When you’re starting out, you just don’t know what exists until you’ve put yourself out there.
Jessica’s product Button-Hook Hairclip, designed as a multifunctional tool to help with buttoning-up clothing
One of Jessica’s designs, Zip-Pull Dogtag – a discrete tool and necklace to help with zipping up clothing
In terms of running a business, was there anything in those early days that really helped you get set up?
After working at Shape Arts, I latched on to various charities and organisations, and did loads of crash courses. I did a course in product design with a charity called A New Direction, where I learnt loads about the creative industries.
At the end of a course with Urban MBA, I was able to pitch for and win some funding for Design for Disability. With that money I created a pop-up shop in Peckham, where I brought design and health practitioners together, to open conversations around disability inclusion and design. This led to winning more funding from a charity called Unltd, so I put on a bigger conference and collaborated with so many interesting people.
You mentioned that building contacts was important to you when you were starting out; can you tell us more about this?
Most of my jobs have come to me, and that happened through constant networking, meeting people and making a bit of a name myself. I’m a very outgoing, outspoken person and a bit of an over-sharer – and that’s been a real asset in attracting work.
Just talking to people at events and design shows really helps in furthering your career. The design circle can be very cliquey – so when you meet people, you’re often meeting that whole world, as they’re all connected. It's like a domino effect.
Jessica’s first event, created using funding won off the back of a 12-week crash course
Jessica and a fellow speaker at Design Ventura, 2019
Has online networking and social media played a part in this too?
For me personally, it was through setting up an online platform that I received a lot back in return. It’s a reminder that if you don’t put yourself out there, you never get anything back.
Social media has definitely had an influence, too. It's a great platform for getting the word out, but it can also be very negative. It becomes very addictive when you’re starting out, and you feel the only way to do that is to be constantly emailing or connecting with people online.
You don't want to become too engrossed, sucked into the habit of it all, and spend your life trying to please other people. It’s a completely different world.
With most face-to-face events cancelled, do you have thoughts on ways that you can connect with people in a similar way?
Through the pandemic, the shift to online has been fantastic for accessibility – it’s what the disability community have been calling out for for years. It’s had a positive impact on those unable to travel or leave their homes.
“Through the pandemic, the shift to online has been fantastic for accessibility – it’s what the disability community have been calling out for for years.”
It means you can now access a much larger group of people and it's opened a lot more doors for people who have been locked out of much of society for a long time. There are a lot of positives that can be drawn from it.
Do you feel your working habits changed much since lockdown started?
In a way, I’d say lockdown has been a blessing in disguise, because it's allowed me to stop – and I’d never done that before. Being able to pause and step back allowed me to see that some of the excitement wasn’t really there anymore; you can really get yourself into a rut.
I’ve always worked from home, and before lockdown, I realised that my days were filled with looking at a computer screen, five days a week – often stuck in a cycle of pitching for funding. In turn, this resulted in having no time for design, collaborate, prototype products, and that didn’t feel very me. I wasn't able to see the bigger picture, and it was stopping me from being creative.
“Before lockdown, my days were filled with looking at a computer screen...and it was stopping me from being creative.”
Being in lockdown allowed me to ask: What do I really want from my business? It led to wanting to rebrand, and rethink my positioning. This funding cycle isn’t the only way of doing business and I got too caught up in that.
I’m now much more open and free in terms of where opportunities can come from; it’s helped me shift the way I think of the business. Part of my journey at the moment is about really identifying the user, their needs and desires.
Jessica speaking at an event
What advice would you give to an emerging creative, wanting to kind of follow a similar path or get into the same line of work?
Firstly, I'd say: be true to yourself. Your best choices in life come from exploring the things that interest you most. So, be you. And if you can, try out as many things as possible. I also think you have to be quite strong, and resilient enough to question what you prioritise, especially if you run a business.
“It's only through getting to your core mission or vision that you’re able to propel yourself forward.”
If you've got a focus – something you’re trying to solve or a driving mission – hold onto it. Otherwise, life becomes a big chocolate box, and you've got too many choices in terms of what you want to do. It's only through getting to your core mission or vision that you’re able to propel yourself forward.
I learnt so much from asking myself: What is your end goal? Keep that goal in mind (and don’t get me wrong, mine has changed a few times!), because it really helps keep you on track and make decisions in the right way.